Catching up with some news, I’m happy to announce that the short documentary I made with David Caprara and Kira Dane was picked up by Vice News for worldwide distribution. I hope you’ll watch it — it’s only 17 minutes. As I post this, it’s already been viewed a quarter-of-a-million times by people all over the world.
The film, which challenges Japanese stereotypes concerning tattoos, was made possible through a crowdfunding campaign that attracted over two hundred investors from around the world. As you’ve probably heard, tattoos are highly stigmatized in Japan — you can’t enter many beaches, gyms or hot-spring baths if you have one, and many employers won’t knowingly hire anyone with a tattoo. This is because people in Japan associate tattoos with the yakuza, Japan’s feared but waning criminal underworld. But the perceived connection is something much more recent than most people realize, a faulty image concocted largely by Japan’s movie industry. Most Japanese are unaware that the full-body tattoos known as “horimono” can actually be traced back to the same flourishing urban culture that brought us ukiyo-e woodblock prints and grand-scale kabuki theater. In our film, we follow a group of tattooed individuals on their annual pilgrimage to a sacred mountain shrine, a traditional that has continued for more than 120 years.
This project was an outgrowth of my previous work with the people of Mt. Oyama, where the shrine — Oyama Afuri Jinya —is located. Oyama was once one of the most popular pilgrimages in Japan, every summer attracting great throngs of pilgrims during the short pilgrimage season, which lasted for just three weeks in July. At a time when the population of Edo (present-day Tokyo) was said to be one-million people, 200,000 pilgrims would travel together on foot to Mt. Oyama, which is located about 50 kilometers west of the capital in what is now Kanagawa Prefecture.
I’ve written a light tourism piece about Mt. Oyama for Metropolis Magazine and a more scholarly, in-depth article for the Toshiba Foundation’s Japan Insights website, along with posts for their blog about an amazing fire ritual at one temple on Oyama and the important Buddhist statuary in another.
David, Kira and I also produced an written interview and a short video with a modern-day tattooist who sticks to the traditional tebori (hand-poked) methods. I have upcoming speaking engagements in February, both online and in person, about the Oyama pilgrimage, Japanese tattoos and the rise of the modern misperceptions.